BUYER’S GUIDE: 10 Steps to Buying a Used Car

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Buyer’s Guide - 10 Steps to Buying a Used CarBuying a quality used vehicle requires that you put your emotions on the back burner and consider only the facts. You must determine what type of vehicle you want, find one in your general price range, then prepare to negotiate. Utilize new and used vehicle websites like to help you in making some key purchasing decisions. These 10 steps will also aid you along the road to used vehicle ownership.

Decide How Much You Can Spend

If you plan to finance a used vehicle, experts say that you should budget no more than 20-percent of your gross income for a car note. Obviously, the more cash you can put on the down payment, the lower your monthly payments and it’s best to pay cash (outright) whenever possible.

Locate Used Vehicles Near You

There are several used car websites that will allow you to enter your city, state, and/or zip code and search for specific vehicles within a predetermined number of miles from you. allows you to search your area to within a 25-mile radius and there is even an app for your phone. You can keep up with your favorite vehicles and get alerts if there is a reduction in price.

Compile a Written List

The number and specifics of each vehicle can rapidly get overwhelming to almost anyone. Compile a written list of vehicles (in your general price range) that sparks your interest. Make detailed notes regarding each vehicle and you can refer to them later. The more research you do, the shorter the list will become.

Do Your Research

After you locate a potential purchase vehicle, get specific information about year, make, model (including trim level), engine size, options, and mileage. Use this information to check vehicle values using NADA or other vehicle evaluation sites. Never pay more than fair market value unless the vehicle is rare or outstanding.

Prepare to Contact the Seller

Have your list handy and make notes when speaking to the seller. Get as much information as possible from individual sellers and record the information on your list. I like to politely ask the seller if he/she is “considering offers” before a face-to-face meeting where negotiations will inevitably begin.

Dig Deeper

Don’t be afraid to ask the seller for the vehicle identification number and use sites like CarFax to obtain a vehicle history report. You will also want to consider vehicle maintenance records (if available) and carefully review them.

Test Drive

Always test drive the vehicle prior to purchasing it. If the vehicle is not comfortable and fun to drive (for you) you will never enjoy it, even if it is in excellent condition. Look for leaks and damage before driving. Pump the brake pedal before pulling into traffic and test the brakes at low speed before speeding up. Listen for abnormal noises and vibrations while driving and mention them during step 8.

Pre-Purchase Inspection

Unless you are purchasing a certified pre-owned vehicle, take the vehicle to a trusted auto repair facility and have a pre-purchase inspection performed. If the vehicle has items that need attention, it doesn’t mean you might not buy it. It just means that the price needs to be adjusted accordingly.


I am always horrified when people simply pay the seller’s asking price without negotiation. I find the negotiation process to be most entertaining. Please understand that there is no need for rudeness or sarcasm during negotiation. Have your facts in order and refer back to your list and pre purchase inspection when necessary.

Close the Deal

Obviously if you are financing a used vehicle, you will not receive the title immediately but make sure that your financing agreement is in order and the vehicle registration and title transfer process is underway before you leave the dealership or financial institution. If you are buying from an individual, get a signed title and make sure the vehicle identification number on the title matches the vehicle. Nineteen states require a bill of sale, but it’s not a bad idea to fill one out for you and the seller regardless of whether your state requires it or not.

A bill of sale is required in the following states:
New Mexico
North Dakota
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Check back here for a downloadable Bill of Sale.

S.M. Darby

S.M. Darby

I am a freelance author with over 25 years of experience as a professional, ASE certified automotive technician and shop owner, muscle car enthusiast, avid street racer, and classic car restoration specialist.